Written by: Lauren Humphries-Brooks, CC2K Staff Writer
Most of us best know Jodie Whittaker as the very first female Doctor Who and, if you’re a canny viewer, from Broadchurch. But she should be recognized for a lot more, including her role in 2016’s British dramedy Adult Life Skills, a sweet, quirky entry from writer/director Rachel Tunnard finally seeing a proper release in America several years after it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film takes on a sometimes clichéd narrative with refreshing frankness, producing a minor but charming comedy that deals with the problems of grief and finally growing up.
Whittaker is Annie, a young woman nearing her thirtieth birthday, who lives in a shed at the bottom of her mother’s garden. She spends time working with her friends at a local forestry center and making homemade films using her thumbs. Her mother (Lorraine Ashbourne) is exasperated by her unwillingness to even move into the house, and her friends Alice (Alice Lowe) and Fiona (Rachael Deering) are uncertain about how to deal with her. But Annie’s problem is more than just arrested development — she’s mourning the death of her twin brother, friend, and co-conspirator Billy. It’s Billy’s loss that has sent her retreating to the shed where they used to play and bicker, and where she saves their toys, videos, and projects as a sort of shrine. Into the middle of this comes Clint (Ozzy Myers), a little boy dealing with his own pain, who pushes Annie to face hers.
Adult Life Skills starts off as a young woman refusing to grow up and as it goes on becomes more about a young woman refusing to address the source of her grief. Annie’s depressed, but she’s unwilling to talk about her brother or even to broach the subject with others, instead retreating to the fantasy worlds that she created with him. The film deals with this topic via indie song montages and quirky dialogue, none of which are bad or poorly made, but have become fairly commonplace in these kinds of stories. The strength of the film lies in the performances, and not only from Whittaker. She imbues Annie with a certain charm that she then counteracts with an acerbic dislike of pretty much everyone, including herself and her family. Her mother’s annoyance with her is understandable, particularly as the film goes on and it becomes clear that Annie is capable of leaving home and just refuses to. Alice Lowe and Rachael Deering are both entertaining presences, as is Brett Goldstein as the socially inept realtor who’s been in love with Annie her whole life. But the whole point here is that no one can really help Annie — her mother can try to force her to find a flat, her grandmother can joke with her, her friends can take her out, but she has to finally make the decision to move out of the shed and on with her life.
Although Adult Life Skills sometimes slips into predictability, it’s remarkable how often it has the chance to do that and avoids it. Yes, there is the cute little boy who helps to teach Annie how to look at the world differently, but the pair form a support group unto themselves, drawing each other out in their own strange ways. There are no villains or antagonists here — just a group of people attempting to navigate a difficult situation. But the film also explores the depths of grief and what it means to the people who experience it. Annie is not being selfish, per se, but she is so involved with trying to maintain her brother’s memory that she’s unable to see how her behavior might be hurting herself, much less the other people around her. Although the film does reinforce the idea that life’s problems can eventually be “solved,” it’s also a mostly stellar, humorous depiction of grief and growing, of being afraid to abandon all the things that were once a part of your life when someone you love is no longer there. Annie’s desperation to cling to the past is human and understandable, as is her need to escape from it.
At the end of the day, Adult Life Skills might be a minor film, but it’s a good one, a diverting and un-romanticized look at grief and growing up. Leaving the shed is not going to solve all of Annie’s problems, but it would probably be a good start.
Adult Life Skills will be released in the US on January 18, 2019.
Author: Lauren Humphries-Brooks, CC2K Staff Writer
Lauren is a film critic, writer, editor, and angry feminist, with a Masters in Film Studies from NYU and a PhD in making men mad on Twitter.